The lake, one of Manipur’s natural heritages, can only be saved with the involvement of people
For Oinam Rajen and his wife Roma, life has been a story of struggle to cope with the changing tides of the Loktak lake in Manipur, said to be one of the largest inland freshwater lakes in the eastern parts of India. Fishers by birth and living, Rajen and his family have lived in the harsh environment of the lake in the shadow of a hydel project that changed everything for them and hundreds of fishers dependent on the lake for their livelihoods and sustenance. Life in the lake during the 1970s, and earlier, was certainly quite different from what they are experiencing today.
In early part of 1983, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Limited commissioned a hydro project called as Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Power Project, having an installed capacity of 105 megawatt (MW). A barrage named as Ithai Barrage was constructed at the confluence of the Manipur river and the Khuga river near Ithai Khunou village in Bishnupur district of Manipur as an integral component of the hydro project. The barrage impounded the water of Loktak lake and several other adjoining wetlands, turning them into a vast spread of water body. Loktak became an artificial water reservoir to serve the hydro project. Since then, life has been a constant nightmare for Oinam Rajen and the fisher families struggling to eke a living out of the lake’s resources.
Understanding the issue
Manipur, having land mass of 22,327 square kilometres (sq km), falls within the Assam Hills Province of the North East India Bio-Geographical Zone I. Its geographical location is 23º50'N to 25º42'N latitudes and 92º58'E to 94º45'E longitudes. Strategically, an extension of the Eastern Himalayas southwards, Manipur lies at the crossroads of the Burmese, Chinese and Indian faunal and floral ranges. The ecosystem in Manipur consists of two interrelated biomes, wetlands and forests. Loktak lake, located towards the southern portion of the central Manipur valley, constitutes an important asset of the state’s natural heritage. In terms of importance in biological diversity, Manipur falls under the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, indicating presence of a wide diversity of biological life – some of which are endemic and rare to the world.
With a water spread of 289 sq km1, Loktak is rich in biological diversity and plays an important role in the ecological and economic security of the region. Loktak and its associated wetlands support wide biodiversity ranging from aquatic and semi-aquatic plants to migratory fishes and wildlife like the endangered Manipur brow-antlered deer. Loktak was accorded the status of a Ramsar site of international importance in 1990. The principle behind the declaration of a wetland as a Ramsar site under the Ramsar Convention of 1990 entails the significant ecological services of the wetland to humanity and the natural environment. The inclusion of a wetland in the Ramsar list embodies the government’s commitment to take up steps necessary to ensure that its ecological character is maintained for future generations.
The implementation of the Loktak project, initiated by the Ministry of Irrigation and Power way back in 1971 and duly commissioned in 1983, disturbed the entire lake ecosystem, resulting in extensive loss to biodiversity and displacing massive human population and the wildlife.
During the past five decades, Loktak’s natural ecosystem degraded considerably due to the hydro project’s impact. Many interventions in the lake during these past decades, including Ithai Barrage, dredging activities to de-silt the lake’s bed, weeding, encroachments, and physical modification of the water body, contributed largely to the degradation of the lake ecosystem. Habitat changes caused by changes in hydrological regime of Loktak, its associated wetlands and river systems induced by human interventions are noted as significant reasons for the sharp decline in migratory water bird and fish population in the lake. The Loktak Development Authority and Wetlands International-South Asia2 agree to this fact, wherein they say, “The populations of migratory and resident waterfowl have declined during the last few decades due to poaching and changes in ecological character of the wetland. The habitat of sangai deer in Keibul Lamjao National Park is also threatened due to habitat degradation.” The national park, which lies in the southern portion of the lake, is equally affected by the changes in hydrological regime of the lake.
Professor Hijam Tombi Singh and Dr Rajkumar Shyamananda Singh (1994)3, who worked in the lake studying its ecology during the early 1990s, noted that the Loktak Project caused the disappearance of over 20 species of aquatic plants of economic and commercial value in the lake area. The project caused the disappearance of several species of indigenous fishes that traditionally migrated upstream from the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system in western Burma through the Manipur river to spawn in Loktak lake and adjoining wetlands. It caused accumulation of floating biomass, locally called as phumdi, and spread of invasive species of weed and grass. The stagnation of water led to accumulation of silt load brought downhill from the western catchment, and pollution load carried by rivers flowing through urban areas, accelerating process of nutrient enrichment. Ecosystem degradation led to thinning and deterioration of the phumdi biomass, which supports habitat and shelter for the Manipur brow-antlered deer, hog deer, wild boar and other wildlife in Keibul Lamjao National Park.
In these past four decades and more, the Manipur government through its undertaking, the Loktak Development Authority, set up in 1987 to address issues of the lake, had initiated schemes to work for the conservation of the lake. However, things have not worked out as planned. A reason cited by critics is that the workforce of the authority is limited to engineers and there is a lack of experts on wetland ecology and management. The other reason cited is the lack of active local community participation in the overall monitoring and management of the lake. In the absence of effective conservation and management plans, Loktak is largely seen in a process of ‘ageing’ due to factors like increased human intervention in the lake area, siltation, pollution, physical modifications, reclamation for agriculture, and encroachments.
Loktak supports livelihoods
The natural resources of Loktak lake provide the backbone of economy for around one lakh families living within it and around its peripheral areas. For the fishing community in the lake, like Oinam Rajen and his family, their entire life is spent fishing day in and day out. From dawn till dusk, the fishers are out there in the open waters of the lake setting their fishing nets, collecting the day’s catch and taking the catch for sale in the local markets. Each day of the year is spent only on fishes and fishing. This is the only occupation for them to earn their living, buy their essentials and send their children to school. The larger part of their lives is spent huddled in their dugout canoe, in rain and in sun, through the day and the night, fishing.
The fishery in Loktak lake and its associated wetlands accounts for up to 60 per cent of the total fish produce in Manipur. Migratory fish species coming upstream from the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system in western Myanmar contribute about 40 per cent of the capture fishery in Loktak and adjoining wetlands, and up along the Manipur and the Nambul rivers. With Ithai Barrage blocking their passageway, there has been sharp decline in the fish yield, considerably impacting the traditional fishery and the fishers’ lives. Migratory fishes no longer reach the lake obstructed by the barrage. To compensate the loss, the state’s fishery department introduces fingerlings of the carp species into the lake every year.
Akashini Devi, a resident of Champu Khangpok floating village located inside the lake, says she and her family have lived in the lake for years, engaged only in fishing. She was brought up from her childhood learning the nuances of navigating the waters of the lake, huddled in her dugout canoe and laying nets, and setting out early every morning before daybreaks to locate her nets and fetch in the day’s catch. The only occupation she knows is fishing, which feeds her family. Her family does not own any agricultural land and so they depend entirely on capture fishery for their sustenance. Like the hundreds of fisher families as her own, Akashini struggles between coping with the harsh environments of the lake and the threat from the state to evict them from the lake on grounds that they are illegal occupiers.
Conservation or destruction?
The Manipur government passed a law on 5 April 2006 titled as the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, under which the state sought to control and administer the management of Loktak lake with the objectives of its conservation, to halt the process of degradation of its ecosystem and to rejuvenate its health. The Act empowers the state, represented by the Loktak Development Authority as the implementing agency, to act for the protection, preservation and conservation. However, the implementation of the law became controversial when it was made to understand that the government sought eviction of the fisher families from the lake on the grounds that they were polluting it.
In November 2011, the Authority started evicting the fishers settled at Champu Khangpok floating village. Fishing huts that were built with bamboo and thatch on the floating biomass were torn down and burnt one after the other. More than 400 of these fishers’ huts were torched, destroying everything the fishers owned – fishing nets, cooking pots, clothing, beds, solar batteries and even cats that the family reared. There was, however, strong resistance from the fishers resulting in a stiff stand-off between the fishers and the authority.
Yet later in 2019, the Manipur government came up with a fresh proposal called as ‘Loktak Inland Waterways Improvement Project’, which sought to popularise tourism by plying motorised boats across the lake for tourists. The fishers opposed this project on the grounds that plying of motorboats widely across the lake could disturb its fragile ecosystem besides dislocating the fishers from their traditional fishery practices. The boats could rip apart the fishing nets laid just below the water surface to catch fish. As a component of the project, there were suggestions to remove the biomass to avail the clear water body. However, much of the biomass is utilised by the fishers for their traditional fishery practice, locally called as ‘Athaphum-namba’. The practice involves fishery in open water fish culture ponds that are formed by dragging in cut biomass to form the circular ponds. This fishing practice yields the maximum earning for the fisher families, with fish catch worth around Rs.10,000 from a single pond if luck and hard work favour.
The objection to the state’s intervention comes from the reasoning that the projects were designed without prior consultation and knowledge of the fishers, and without explaining how the projects might affect them in the long term. The contention is that these projects had potential to displace the fisher families and dislocate them from their traditional fishery and livelihoods. The other contention is that even as the fishers seek to contribute their might towards conservation of the lake, their voices are not heard and they do not find any reference on their involvement in any of the planning process and management of the lake by the authority.
The Manipur government sought funds worth Rs.378 crore from the Government of India under the Special Plan Assistance to clear most of the biomass crowding the lake’s water surface within a time span of three years beginning January 2010. However, this project is seen as a failure as the authority had not managed to accomplish its objective. As of today, the lake is still full of the phumdi biomass and is crowded with invasive weeds. The fishing community did propose to the authority to rope them in as they have local knowledge of cutting up the biomass in pieces and clear these from the lake through the Khordak channel, which is a natural outlet connecting Loktak with the Manipur river. However, the lake managers have so far not responded to this proposal from the local community.
Community participation in lake conservation
There are a few initiatives at the community level in the general effort at conservation of Loktak. One of these initiatives was taken up by non-governmental organisation Manipur Nature Society in association with villagers of Tokpa Kabui, which is located on the eastern face of the Thangjing-Loiching range that forms the western catchment of the lake. The NGO worked in around 500 hectares (ha) of forest land belonging to the village community, with a projected total area of 1,000 ha in later times. The emphasis was on the natural and aided regeneration of forest to check top soil loss and revitalise the micro-watersheds, healthy growth of the vegetation cover and to induce the return of the wildlife in the area. Micro vegetative check dams were constructed along the course of the hill streams, and few water bodies were created to slow down the process of silt load deposition downhill. The water bodies provide space for fishery by the village community. The villagers formed Tokpa Nature Club with around 80 volunteers consisting of boys and girls belonging to the Rongmei tribe to take up much of the community-based management work of their forest land.
Other than the Tokpa Kabui initiative, there are some efforts at conservation of wildlife in the peripheral areas of the lake. The Sangai Protection Forum, based at Keibul Lamjao, has worked for the protection of the sangai (Manipur brow-antlered deer), hog deer, wild boar and other wildlife in Keibul Lamjao National Park from poachers and been involved in rescue of stranded animals during floods. The Nongmaikhong Youth Club, Khoijuman Students’ Club, Generation de New Image Manipur (GENIM) and Centre for Conservation of Nature and Cultivation of Science (CCNCS) work towards protection and conservation of migratory water birds. During the winter months from October to February, thousands of migratory water birds visit Loktak from as far as Europe, Siberia and China. In 2019, CCNCS in collaboration with Bishunupur forest division of the state’s forest department declared a portion of the lake near Thinunggei village in the district as a bird sanctuary to protect roosting migratory water birds, in addition to protecting the resident avifauna population in the area.
In late 2011, fishers living at Champu Khangpok village formed an association called All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union, Manipur with the objective of addressing livelihoods issue and concerns on the ecological status of the lake. The other purpose for forming the union was to resist the government’s attempts to evict them from the lake. The union organises awareness and motivation campaigns to attract active participation of the local community in realising its objectives. As part of their conservation strategy, the union organises consultations amongst the locals, observation of significant days dedicated to the natural environment, canoe rallies, and lake clean-up. In fact, the union declared a portion of the lake as a fish sanctuary to serve several purposes including control of overfishing, indiscriminate harvesting of fingerlings and promotion of native fishes.
The other objective of declaring the fish sanctuary is to control and administer a portion of the lake within their control to raise awareness and to protect migratory water birds during their roosting season between October to February. The union recently started an initiative to sow seeds of aquatic plants like water chestnut and fox nut, which they consume as food. Populations of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants that are consumed as food and are of economic value have declined due to the degradation of the lake. The fishers hope to increase the plant population to meet their food needs and to revitalise the lake ecosystem.
For Oinam Rajen, his wife Roma and the other fishers, their future lies in the healthy regeneration of the lake ecosystem. They live off the lake and its resources. If the lake faced an unnatural death, it would spell the end for them. It is a dire need for the fishers to step in to save the lake, as best as they can in their own way, which is why the union came into existence, and for the past nine years they have been actively involved in many ways to generate awareness and support for conservation of the lake.
The only hitch in the story is that the fishing community does not figure in the government’s scheme of things. They are not represented in formulating and designing of projects on Loktak. The government considers the fishing community as encroaching upon the lake and even accuses them for polluting it. In fact, the government has repeatedly tried to evict them from the lake.
Oinam Rajen and his family, and the rest of the fishers, have no other option than to resist and fight back for their rights to life.
1. This has been revised to around 236.21 sq km only as per a 2016 report of the Loktak Development Authority.
2. LDA-WISA Newsletter ‘Loktak’, Vol.1, October 1999.
3. Singh, H. Tombi and Singh, R.K.Shyamananda, 1994.Ramsar sites of India: Loktak lake, WWF-India, p.32.
This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Heinrich Böll Stiftung will be excluded from any liability claims against copyright breaches, graphics, photographs/images, sound document and texts used in this publication. The author is solely responsible for the correctness, completeness and for the quality of information provided.